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Jumping to Conclusions

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

Have you ever wondered why someone is acting the way they are when the facts clearly don't support it? Have you ever wondered why someones doesn't get your point of view?

Ladder of Inference

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour”, Stephen Covey.

What else can we use to judge someone on? We can only judge what we see; we’re not mind readers. But for ourselves, even if the specific action we take came out a little different than we’d hoped it would, we can console ourselves that at least our intentions were good.

The observable action comes as a consequence of thought processes that we often cut short. From time to time we jump to conclusions. Some people do this often, others less frequently. But we all do it.

Reflect & Write.Think of the last time you jumped to a conclusion about something that later turned out to be wrong.

Organisational psychologist Chris Argyris developed a model called the ‘Ladder of Inference’[i], which helps to explain, and then correct what’s going on.

Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we receive sensory inputs through our 5 senses, which passes through the RAS filters to give us a selective reality. We add meaning to interpret the reality through our cultural lens and apply our existing assumptions. Based on these we draw conclusions; from which we form beliefs; and take actions that seem “right’ because they are aligned with our beliefs.

Wow: you see how far it is from facts to actions! When someone behaves in a certain way, and you cannot understand why, it is because the rungs on your ladder are different to the rungs on theirs. The sequence is the same, but the outputs are different.

When you jump to a conclusion it’s because the rungs are working super-fast in your subconscious. The key to success is to slow down and allow your conscious mind to ask questions at each step. This is also the key to understanding someone else’s behaviour. Remember, they believe that they are doing the right thing because it is aligned with their beliefs – so challenging them at this level can be perceived to be an attack on their belief system, causing a dramatic and disproportionate response. You may have used the phrase “they are making a mountain out of a molehill”; because you think you are talking about a minor action, but they interpret it as an attack on their beliefs.

If your conclusions are different to someone else’s, carefully descend the ladder with them until you can get back to reality and the facts that you can both agree on, and then climb the ladder together comparing notes about what you both now see as you climb.

Reflect & Write.Think of 3 situations where someone has acted in a certain way, and you cannot understand the logic of why they are behaving that way. Who was it; what was the situation; what did they do; and how can you climb the ladder with them so that you can understand the belief on which it is based?

[i]Argyris, C. (1990) Overcoming Organizational Defences: Facilitating Organizational Learning. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

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